Golf course design and other lessons

I have always enjoyed playing golf with Mike Clayton (and here) – we are members of the same club and have played many times over the years. He’s a good golfer (obviously) but his passion these days is directed to course design. A game with Mike takes you on a journey of classic architecture, botany, history of the game (ask him the result of any major of the last 30 years and he’ll give you a rundown of the event and the top 10 place getters) and what makes a hole good, bad or ordinary.

He’s more of a purist than a rogue, but because most don’t take the time to learn, they get their back up when they see something they don’t like or understand.

“Clayton is the worse course designer in history”
“He chops down too many trees”
“He’s destroyed our course”
“I don’t like what he’s done here – he’s no good”

He cops all sorts of criticism and most of it unfounded. He has told me countless stories that really makes me wonder if members (and staff) of these fancy golf clubs have any clue. When it comes to golf it seems that we’re all experts and know more about design then the people who do it for a living.

I admire Clayton because he doesn’t waver. He has to deal with committees and sub-committees and committees of the sub-committee. He has to work with a bunch of people who for the most part are blind to golf architecture but think they’re experts – is there a worse kind of person?

But he keeps trucking and lives his passion each day. Spend a little bit of time with him and get him talking, you’ll learn a lot about course design and architecture. You’ll begin to appreciate the good the bad and the ugly.

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Clayton over the years…

Golf is a game played through the air so the majority of the hazards should be placed on the ground. You don’t need to have excessive trees, especially overhanging branches, obstructing the line of play.

There’s nothing wrong with almost any of the classic courses from the past. Nothing at all. The issue is how far the ball goes and it seems crazy to keep lengthening these holes (and destroying them in the process) when the ball could be modified more quickly and cheaply.

Almost always, the best holes are the short par 4’s. They offer more options from the tee and give golfers, of all ability, a chance of a birdie or easy par. There should be plenty of risk and reward and fun to play. There’s not enough short 4’s built these days.

The power game is not overly good for golf.

Use the smallest amount of sand possible to fix a divot hole.

Fairway mow lines look more classical when they’re straight. The fancy curved lines are unnecessary.

Manicured fairways and beautiful greens doesn’t necessarily make for a great golf course.

More trees don’t make the golf course more beautiful. Trees should be native to the area and compliment the playing lines.

Sidenote: One of the most interesting discussions I’ve had were on the trees at Metropolitan Golf Club (our course). One day we were out playing at it was obvious they’d removed some trees from the course.

Mike: How many trees do you think have been removed, more or less than 100?

Me: It looks like they’ve taken a few away but it doesn’t look like too many. The course is certainly more open, maybe a couple of 100.

Mike: Not even close. Over the last few months they’ve taken away over 2500 trees. They were “rubbish” trees that inhibit the health of the natives and serve no purpose.

If the members had known so many trees had been removed there would have been uproar. But the process was done bit by bit and almost nobody noticed – except for the big, obvious and dangerous trees that caused some issues.

***

Mike and I were standing on the new 5th tee. It’s a newly constructed par 3 at Metropolitan, a hole Clayton had suggested to the Committee would work well as a 19th hole (spare hole). Instead of using temporary greens or playing to the practice green when other holes were out of action, this hole can be used as a replacement. There were lots of arguments (what about the trees, the safety issues and the cost), none of them viable, so the club got this great new hole.

It’s a short uphill par 3, built on perhaps the best bit of ground on the entire course. Clayton told me that the hole was there on the original layout but had long been forgotten about during redevelopments.

The green is narrow, with bunkers eating into both sides of the green. It’s a relatively easy hole if you hit a good approach, but miss it, even slightly, and you’re left with one of those tricky bunker shots or a devilish chip to a fast green. Accuracy is the ultimate goal.

Clayton: What club are you hitting?

Me: Pitching wedge

Clayton: Get out of here. You can’t hit a pitching wedge 137m. It’s uphill and into a slight breeze.

Me: Yes I can. I have got to hit it hard, but I can get it there.

I always like a challenge and I knew my swing could make the distance. I set up to the ball, aimed a little left to accommodate the draw and making sure I hooded the face into a closed position. Whack!

The ball came off flush, it started high, left of the bunkers and then drew back onto the flag. It came down next to the flag. I gave Mike a little smirk and said, “over to you Big Guy”.

Clayton: Christ! This is ridiculous. Back in the day a pitching wedge would go around 110 yards. Maximum! If you can do that kind of stuff you can do anything.

Mike is a short hitter. But he doesn’t let that bother him. He’s probably the most accurate ball striker I’ve played with. Rumor has it he missed a fairway once and is probably more deadly with his 5 iron than most with a 9.

Mike chose a 7 iron and made his nice controlled swing. The ball took off on a low trajectory and didn’t deviate from the flag. It plonked down on the green and was no further away than mine.

Clayton: Cameron, your ball striking is really good and it’s impressive too but I think you need to gear down a little. I played with Geoff Ogilvy during the week and he would hit an 8 iron here every day of the week. Get you 8 iron out and try again.

I took the longer club out and made a swing. I was was too aggressive and tried at the last second to slow it down (otherwise the ball would airmail the green and find the 6th tee). The shot was an ugly hook that missed the green by a mile.

Me: Mike, I always hit that hook when I try and swing slower. I hate that shot, I’m much better when I go at the ball hard…

Clayton: Have another go. You have to use a more controlled swing. You’re not trying to bash the ball, you’re going to caress it.

I went again and hit another poor one.

Me: I’ll need more practise on this one. I just don’t feel comfortable.

Clayton: Sure. You need to keep working at it. The best players all have the ability to smash the ball, but they can also hit the controlled shot when they need it. If you learn to be more controlled your golf will go to the next level.

Have you ever been given some really good information or a lesson but not really been in a position to hear it or fully appreciate it?

This was one of those times for me. Mike was trying to help me but I wasn’t ready to hear it. It wasn’t like I ignored him or anything, it’s just my little brain was somewhere else.

“The teacher will appear when the student is ready”
Buddha proverb

I had gotten so good at “smashing” the ball that I wasn’t interested hitting another shot. These “softer” shots were hard for me and I wasn’t prepared to go through the uncomfortable stage of learning something new. I didn’t want to get worse before I improved.

Mike could see my game with clear eyes. I was blinded by my limited success. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I can be such a dunderhead sometimes.

***

The fear of getting worse holds a lot of people back. There’s also the fear of success that can cause conflict in our system. Our Pesky mind will be quick to stop us from getting too big for our boots:

“Hold on Champ, why would you want to do something different when you’re doing fine just now?”

“Don’t mess with your swing, you don’t need to improve. You don’t want to start playing poorly, do you?”

“Your game is good enough. You don’t need to change. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fine”.

“You have an important game on next week so don’t destroy what you already have”.

This is the exact same mindset that has brought many businesses/corporations/industries to their knees.

The rail industry was once the biggest and baddest enterprise on earth. But they were too focussed on locomotives and railway lines and blind to those big things that fly in the sky.

The newspaper industry have had it so good for so long that they thought they were invincible. Instead of embracing the Internet they have fought it. They’re now in a mad scramble to keep what little market share they’ve got left.

Ditto to the music industry.

Kodak almost died because they refused to embrace digital photography. It almost seems laughable but they thought that consumers would always want those polaroid photos.

Nokia Phones were huge and had every chance to develop a smart phone. They didn’t and they’re not so popular anymore.

The list could go on and on.

It seems like it’s a normal human trait. We’re scared to move, especially if things are trucking along ok. We are scared to change. We fear the unknown.

As I write this I’m more than a little mad at myself. What was the worse thing that could have happened if I had followed Mike’s advice?

Hit some bad shots when I was learning?
Felt uncomfortable for a while?
Maybe even embarrassed myself with some terrible play at the wrong time?
Hurt my handicap by a shot or two?

But I can’t help but think of the lost opportunity…

I lost my last ever Club Championship because of some poor iron play down the stretch. My game was crying our for some finesse this day!

Developing a better golf game.

Learning something new.

Taking my golf game to a new level and playing in a way that is more meaningful.

I let Pesky and ego get in the way. I was thinking so short term that the possibility to improve was lost. Yep, I was a dunderhead.

***

I played with Clayton in one of my last rounds at Metropolitan before moving north to Queensland. On this day we were joined by a young gun. This guy has a lot of game and absolutely smashes the ball. There’s hardly any course around that he can’t overpower and destroy.

Clayton was impressed. On a par 5 the youngster hit a huge drive and then belted an 8 iron onto the green. I struggled to reach the green in two and Clayton was no chance. The kid could play a different game and made golf look easy. He has the world at his feet.

When we reached the new temporary hole I watched history repeat itself. This time we played from the Championship tee – 20 metres longer but still into the prevailing wind.

Clayton hit a beautiful 4 iron that cheated the wind and finished 10 feet from the hole. It was a fine shot from a guy who has mastered his craft.

I hit my 7 iron and watched it ballon into the wind. It was well struck but went too high and landed well short of the pin.

The Kid took his 9 iron (yes, a 9 iron) and gave it an almighty whack. He pulled it slightly and then watched it curve left and bury itself in the rough surrounding the green.

Clayton: You guys have no finesse. You only have one gear – it’s smash but no control. Have another go and hit it below the wind.

The young guy took another swipe at the ball, this time it ballooned (like mine) and buried itself in the sand. Unplayable.

Clayton probably rolled his eyes and said, “Here we go again, another guy who doesn’t listen”.

This time I could see things more clearly. Clayton’s swing was smooth (all his swings are smooth) and he has incredible control. It was almost like he was pitching the ball with his 5 iron.

The Kid was different. He attacked the ball with so much ferocity there was little control. If he was off, even slightly, the ball would miss the green. This was shown on his subsequent attempts that all failed to find the putting surface. Clayton could probably stand there all day and not miss the small green.

Their swings were chalk and cheese. And for once I could see what Clayton was on about. Power is great in certain circumstances – like long holes and driving from the tee. But the brilliance of golf is the diversity required to play it well. You need accuracy. You need control and you can’t always power your way around the course. Golf is more than a long drive contest.

When you have a little shot, uphill and into the wind, you certainly need more control. It’s time to harness the power and play something a little more delicate. The 19th hole had brought the two younger players undone and revealed the true master.

Clayton: You both need to work on your finesse shots. Learn to control your power and you’ll both become better players. We should all take a trip down to Barnbougle Dunes and spend a week playing these shots. I’d make you take a half set, that way you’d need to learn how to hit your 7 iron the same distance as your 8.

Sidenote: He’d also make it against his rules to land any ball on the green. With Mike’s rules all the approaches would need to be bounced onto the green – no lofted shots allowed.

I hope one day to take Mike up on his offer. Barnbougle is an amazing place and to spend a few days down there with him would be some sort of experience. Notwithstanding, I had already made my mind up, I was going to learn some control with my game. Finally.

This is a snippet of an edition of the Cameron Strachan Letter - a monthly publication that offers ideas, insight and advice for long lasting golf improvement.

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1 Comment

  • Michael Murphy

    Reply Reply April 21, 2014

    Great work Cam. Really enjoyed this post, the best one I have read in quite a while!

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