It hasn’t been built yet. And it probably never will be; the perfect golf course, that is.
We’ve come close a few times though, with the Old Course at St Andrews the nearest so far.
Ironically, that might have something to do with the fact that the Home of Golf is the course that has seen the least input from humans. It just evolved into the ‘perfect’ course, which is, by its very nature, the way of evolution.
Sadly, the Old Course isn’t perfect any more. Not for leading professionals anyway. We hit the ball too far these days. So the definition of ‘perfect’ has changed. Plus, if I were told I had to choose one course to play every day for the rest of my life, it probably wouldn’t be one at St Andrews. I would opt for something not quite so close to such extreme elements. I’d like some nice weather every day.
For me then, the perfect course is probably a combination of all the best features of, say, the top courses on the rankings. Ideally, I’d amalgamate the common attributes of Pine Valley, Oakmont, the Old Course, Shinnecock Hills, Royal Melbourne, The National Golf Links, Augusta National and Cypress Point.
With one or two exceptions, these courses are not generally that difficult until the weather turns nasty or the pins are placed in really tough spots. That makes them – again generally – playable for golfers of all standards. There’s width to the fairways, and without any real difficulty found around the greens. Everybody can have fun.
"My perfect course will be a beautiful place to be, a nice environment for spending time with friends, a great place to walk around and fun for all golfers."
Fun ... that’s important. What the top professionals find difficult, the average amateur finds relatively easy. In other words, the further the average guy gets from the hole, the harder golf gets. For the pros, the game gets harder the closer we get to the hole, generally anyway.
That’s why courses like Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne are playable for all. The real challenges there are around the greens. They aren’t much of a ball-striking test if all you want to do is get close to the putting surface in regulation. So bogeys are relatively straightforward if that is what you aim for. Pars, birdies and eagles call for more precision and correctness, which is as it should be. As soon as you start taking risks, things should get more difficult or dangerous. But if all you want to do is play to your handicap, then that should very achievable.
So my perfect course is going to incorporate width off the tee. It isn’t going to be too long. And most of the challenge will be found in the shots to the greens.
My greens will be large and incorporate interesting undulations. Nothing too silly though. They will be firm. Golf is infinitely more interesting when the ball bounces and rolls after it lands on the ground. And, while I’m not one who pays much attention to Stimpmeter readings, my greens will be slower than today’s accepted standard.
We need to get away from the modern obsession with ultra-short grass on both the greens and the fairways. All that does is create so many unnecessary issues. I have to think, for example, that just about every superintendent the world over would really like to see his greens running two feet slower than has become the norm.
So my greens will be firm and run at, say, no more than ten feet on the Stimpmeter, which is, as I think about it, just about what you see on a seaside course in the United Kingdom when it is set up normally. Firm enough that the ball will roll nicely. And firm enough that, when you are coming in from the wrong angle, you are faced with a bit of a predicament. Nothing impossible, but enough to make you think.
On the fairways, I’d want some undulation too. Golf is so much more interesting when you have to hit balls off slopes. If the grass is cut too short you lose that, the balls running to the bottom of the slopes. Hitting from flat lies time after time is not nearly as much fun as when the ball is either above or below your feet. That’s true around the greens, too.
As an aside, I’m betting that chipping yips hardly existed in golf before fairways were cut too short. Nowadays I see all kinds of players having all kinds of problems playing from lies that are way too ‘tight’ for their ability level. That’s fine for the pros, but the average guy finds golf difficult enough playing in a big flat field in which he has a perfect lie every time. So there is no need to add difficulty with hyper-fast greens and fairways, crazy-deep bunkers and thick rough, which is why my perfect course will have none of the above.
As for bunkers, they will be difficult but easy to avoid if you want to avoid them. Yet again, the Old Course and Royal Melbourne are my models here. If your goal is not to hit into a bunker you can go months without doing so. But if you challenge the course and take on the bunkers, the penalty is at least three-quarters of a shot. And, once you are in the sand, any difficulty will be presented by the shot, not the lie. I like hard shots from easy lies rather than easy shots from hard lies.
Moving right along, I think carries are a great part of golf, but I don’t think they should ever be forced upon the player. Going for it or not should always be a choice. The Old Course has all kinds of temptations. You can go for the ‘hero carry’ on so many holes. But if you don’t want to, there is a different route available. That’s perfect.
The same is true at Augusta National. Take the par-5 13th hole. The ‘hero carry’ is there for you on the second shot. But you can also bumble up short of Rae’s Creek then chip over it. You just have to be prepared to add one shot to your score. The average guy can shoot 90 every day on a course like that and have the time of his life. So there will be no forced carries on my perfect course.
Unfortunately, much of modern course design is actually going the other way. Courses that are 8,000 yards long and narrow, with perfect, soft greens are really not that difficult for the average PGA Tour professional. But they are unplayable for an 18-handicapper.
My perfect course will also be part of a welcoming and friendly environment. There will be no cart girls, but there will be a Sunningdale-type halfway house where sausage sandwiches will be available. There will be a small range where you can hit a few 5-irons before you wander to the 1st tee, carrying your own bag. At the end of the round, you will be able to get your own car from the carpark and you will be able to walk around with your dog on a leash if you so wish. I don’t know why we don’t do that in Australia.
In other words, on my perfect course there will be no wasted manpower, no wasted energy and no wasted money.
Speaking of which, my perfect course will be playable with a half-set of clubs. Don’t get me wrong though, I want to be able to go out with my 14 clubs and have a great time. But I also want to be able to play in three hours with four clubs and have just as much fun. My perfect course will cater to whatever version of golf you want to play.
Most of the golf at my perfect course will be match play. There will be a monthly medal so that everyone can maintain a handicap but no more than that. There will be no obsession with numbers on cards. In my experience, everyone is much happier when they play match play. Stroke play is a necessary evil for professionals, but for amateurs it should be the exception not the rule. Adding up scores isn’t often fun.
And everyone will walk. Courses that can only be played in a cart, where you have to smash a driver off every tee and take five hours to get round because it is so long are anathema to me. Perfect golf is as much about the social experience as it is about the playing. Hiking from green to tee is not my idea of fun. It is, in fact, horrible.
To sum up, my perfect course will be a beautiful place to be, a nice environment for spending time with friends, a great place to walk around and fun for all golfers – testing for me and ‘easy’ for an 18-handicapper. I don’t want to feel bad for someone for whom long rough and long carries are too difficult. I want everyone to have a good time.
That would be simply perfect.