George Peper: A Call for Kinder Golf Courses

Having suffered through a generation that produced some regrettably brutish golf courses, we may now be in remission

Thirty-five years ago, when George Bush famously called for a “kinder, gentler nation,” at the 1988 Republican Convention he was referring to the overall state of American society, but he could just as well have been talking about golf courses. Back then, several factors had converged to spawn a parade of decidedly unkind and ungentle places to play.   

A sustained bull market had spurred the construction of hundreds of resorts, vacation homes, and retirement communities, many of them with “championship” golf courses of prodigious length and difficulty.  

Over the same period, improvements in equipment—particularly the golf ball and the driver—had added length to everyone’s teeshots. Long hitters got the biggest boost with the result that courses were stretched to accommodate them.  

Also during that time, two individuals had risen to prominence. One was architect Pete Dye, who’d shown he knew how to test the best, whether with a short and tight layout (Harbour Town) or a big ballpark (Oak Tree National). The other was the man whose attention Dye attracted, visionary PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who had hatched an idea for a network of Tournament Players Courses. It had begun with the daunting TPC at Sawgrass, a design that embodied Dye’s credo: “Golf isn’t fair, so why should a golf course be.”  

Each of the courses in the TPC network was designed in collaboration with a Tour pro, and that helped launch an era when several of the game’s best players became architects. Jack Nicklaus led the way and Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, Ben Crenshaw, Davis Love III, Nick Faldo, and Greg Norman were among the many who followed suit. These guys, used to tackling long, tough golf courses, often transferred that sensibility to their own designs.  

Illustration by Michael Witte

On top of all this, the two major magazines, Golf Digest and GOLF Magazine, fanned the flames with their influential course rankings. The first such list, published by Golf Digest in 1966, touted not the best but the Toughest 200 Courses in America. GOLF Magazine did its part by becoming the first to rank courses numerically instead of in groups of 10 as Golf Digest had. The result was that golf architecture became a very competitive—and lucrative—business, with owners, developers, and architects all trying to one-up each other in the quest to create a course that would rank as high as possible on the Top 100 lists. 

It’s now 35 years later, however, and although it would be hard to make an argument that our society in general is any kinder or gentler than it was in 1988, I do see some hope in the golf course world—and it’s because of the same perfect storm of forces, all of which seem to have made U-turns.   

The course-building boom ground to a halt a couple of decades ago when developers realized—painfully—that demand wasn’t what it had seemed. Today, as the world’s economies struggle and our environment is increasingly threatened, the new courses with the best chance of survival are those with low maintenance budgets, meaning fewer acres of terrain needing water and tending. That tends to translate to shorter, faster-running, more sustainable courses—the kind that are friendlier to the average player.

Meanwhile, the USGA and R&A at last seem to be bringing equipment under control. Future distance increases likely will not come from a hot ball or driver, so we can pretty much forget about seeing back tees of 8,000 yards. Indeed, many rank-and-file golfers, fed up with ever-lengthening, ever-more-difficult courses, have begun to embrace the “play it forward” concept, moving without shame to a shorter set of markers.  

Architecturally, the Pete Dye era is over and in his place we have a new breed of designers, some of them “Dyesciples” with a softer touch, some of them minimalists, and almost none of them Tour pros. The rare exception is Tiger Woods, and interestingly he has become one of the leaders—along with David McLay Kidd, Mike Devries, and Rob Collins/Tad King—of a movement toward more playable courses where the keynote is increased width rather than length. In contrast to Dye’s mantra, the emerging consensus is that golf is hard enough without the playing field adding to the difficulty.   

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the magazines seem to have cooled their jets. Compare today’s Golf Digest and GOLF Magazine top 100 lists to those of 40 years ago and you’ll find them populated by fewer brutish tests. For every behemoth that has found its way onto the rankings there is at least one addition—either a new design or a restoration of a cozy classic from a century ago—where playability and fun are paramount.  

But the most refreshing development may be the list that emerged a couple of years ago. Called The 147 Custodians, it’s the creation of Ran Morrissett, the steward of GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 list, but it’s actually a feature of, a website for golf architecture enthusiasts that Morrissett founded in 1999.   

This ranking, which originally included 147 courses but is about to number 150—one for each playing of the Open Championship—is not the consensus of a panel, it’s all Morrissett’s, and it’s notable for a couple of reasons. Although it includes many of the same courses that appear on the two magazine lists—70 of them in America, the rest from around the globe—it excludes the following icons: Pine Valley, Augusta National, Cypress Point, Seminole, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, and Winged Foot.  

Why don’t they make the list? Partly because they are not exactly bastions of kinder, gentler golf. Morrissett had his golf heart in precisely the right place when he established the following eight criteria for courses and clubs qualifying as custodians of the game:  

  1. A course that provides engaging puzzles to solve beats one which does not. 
  2. A course where the ball is encouraged to run beats one where it is not. 
  3. A course where you can carry your bag at any time beats one where you may not. 
  4. A course where you can play quickly while walking, beats one where you cannot. 
  5. A course you can enjoy at any age beats one you cannot. 
  6. A course with understated maintenance practices beats one with conspicuous greenkeeping. 
  7. A club that emphasizes the simple game of golf beats one which pursues the trappings of status. 
  8. A course you want to play again and again beats one you only wish to play annually.  

What these eight commandments say is that elation beats frustration, inviting beats intimidating, natural beats manicured, modesty beats pretension, wide beats long, walking beats riding, a ground attack beats artillery practice, and a resourceful recovery shot beats ball hunting. I couldn’t agree more.  

I won’t list the top 10 courses on the 147 Custodians—you should go to the site and check them out for yourself—but trust me, they’re all courses you’ll love playing. Let’s hope the current forces of kindness and gentleness continue to prevail and the future brings us many more such courses and clubs that embrace and celebrate the simple virtues of the game.

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