Extreme Golf—The Origins of the Game

by Mac Plumart

February 2011

It has been a little over a year since I became a member of Golf Club Atlas. Although I am not the most experienced golfer in the world, I think my passion for almost every aspect of the game ranks up there with the most extreme golf fanatics. I like to play the game, I like to study its history, I like to analyze the playing fields, and I like to track all of my experiences relative to the game. In addition to reading many golf books, I read many of the posts on GCA.com and take notes and ponder the ideas/thoughts expressed in them. I believe this approach to learning about the game has led me to several insights which might not ever reveal themselves to the average golfer.

One of these insights came from combining ideas gleaned from the posts of Melvyn Hunter Morrow, George Bahto, Tom Doak, and reading Donald Ross‘ Golf Has Never Failed Me.

This breakthrough first began to materialize while reading Melvyn‘s post on Jason Jones‘ great thread Contribution of templates to land particularly suited for golf. He said the following regarding a redan hole design:

“What makes me unhappy is the fact that we want to template a great hole but we want to use all the modern facilities to play it, rendering the whole experience a sham – so why not just produce a new hole. But no we want our cake and to eat it as well, caring little for the concept or design behind that original hole.”

To which I responded,

“Melvyn, Melvyn, Melvyn…AWESOME stuff!!!! I mentioned the following on my Donald Ross–Golf has never Failed me thread; “But I really do think that the key to understanding architecture is not to simply analyze today‘s architecture using today‘s equipment and looking through modern eyes. IF someone has a desire to learn about architecture and architectural history, I think understanding the context of the times is important, the changes to architectural theory, and the catalysts for those changes.”…

Give me a redan, but adjust the yardage and height of the front embankment and slope of the green the take into account technology changes…

give me the concept but adjust it for modern technology.”

A few days later George Bahto started a thread entitled ?New Age Redans vs. Golden Age Versions in which he said the following…

“So who can or who has built a great Redan in the Modern Age properly reflecting the original concept …. but adjust the yardage and height of the front embankment and slope of the green the take into account technology changes. You are talking major yardage compensation and you have to factor in the effect new equipment has on today‘s golf game. Is there a Redan out there that can compare what the ODG‘s built?…

Capturing the traditional concept of Redan is very difficult.”


And later in that same thread Tom Doak responded with this:

“Most of the modern Redans I have seen (including most of the six or so that I have built) are different than the original for one or more of the reasons below:

1. Modern architects learn not to drain the entire green off at one spot, and that’s what the green at North Berwick does. So, you either see part of the green draining to the front right (that’s why it’s flatter than the original) or somewhere out to the mid doe ir back left behind the bunker (whereas at North Berwick the 16th tee is raised higher in that location).

2. Modern architects usually look to create distinct pin positions, and many times that includes a front hole location on the Redan, so they make it less steep in front. Whereas at North Berwick or National, there really isn’t much of a front hole location, and the green is fairly plain, just a big long slope with raised edges.

3. Modern architects usually build the Redan in one of two settings … a flat area where they can’t think of a different idea (a la #7 at Chicago Golf Club) or sited along a natural ridge (a la #4 at High Pointe). In either case, it is unlikely that the ground at the back left of the green will be anything like what you find at North Berwick, where it is soft and gentle and nearly at grade, despite the deep hollows at the front and back of the green. That sort of land formation really only occurs on links ground where the deep hollows don’t have to surface drain anywhere. And, of course, few modern courses are built on ground like North Berwick.

4. Few modern architects have EVER built a green which slopes away at 4% or more, like the real thing.

5. Modern designers try to build the Redan at 210-220 yards thinking it has to be that long if players are going to use a lower-trajectory club for the shot to the green, but at that length, they also reason that the green can’t be too severe.

6. Not many courses have the tailwind and the firm grind common to North Berwick, so even if you built an exact replica, it wouldn’t really PLAY like the original very often. By far my favorite of the ones I have built is the 17th at Pacific Dunes. I think it gets the entrance of the green just right, and that’s one of the hardest parts. We deliberately made the right side of the green softer than the original because our hole was 210 yards and into the prevailing wind, but the other 3/4 of the green plays like the real thing. However, the hole only plays like the North Berwick hole in the winter, with the wind straight behind; in summer it is into a quartering wind from the left, and there aren’t many players who can hit a running draw in that wind.”

In essence, I think that we see in these posts that there is a sentiment that modern golf just ain‘t what it used to be back in the day. And what it used to be just might be more akin to an adventure than a game. In addition to making some great comments on modern maintenance issues, Tom Doak says that no modern architect would build a green that slopes more than 4% and that a par 3 that plays over 200 yards can‘t have a green that is too severe. Why? Why can‘t that be the case?

Perhaps Melvyn answered these questions with some ideas he shared in his post on the ?Is the Study of Golf Course Architecture… thread;

“…Golf is these days all about the lower scores…

Many seem happy to utilize Templates but are scared to mimic the guys who originally designed them for fear that the original were to penal, but Hell guys this is Golf…

easy will never be found in The Real Golfers Dictionary.”

Melvyn‘s answer, in my opinion, hits that nail squarely on the head and seems to espouse many of the key concepts addressed in Bob Crosby‘s amazing Joshua Crane piece. And I think the ideals of fair and equitable golf versus adventure/sportsman style golf were the focus of the Crane Debates. And really what has changed today? Perhaps not too much in terms of the arguments, but it certainly seems that the vast majority of golfers are on Crane‘s side, which is the side of fair and equitable golf. Remember Tiger Woods complaining at last year‘s (2010) US Open at Pebble Beach that the greens were bumpy. And all the golfers in my regular weekend game complain if their straight and long drives end up with an uneven lie. And it appears from the comments cited above that greens with more than 4% slopes and/or long par 3s with severe greens are not acceptable, most likely because they are unfair in the modern golfer‘s eyes.

I suppose for me this whole thing came together when I saw the Sitwell Park Mackenzie Green. Literally, my jaw hit the floor. What an incredible green! How fun that would be to play. But then I learned that the green had been plowed under and completely renovated many, many years ago because it was simply too unfair. What a shame! But soon after that I discovered that the 13th at Barnbougle Dunes had used Sitwell Park‘s Mackenzie Green as its inspiration. I was excited to say the least, but almost as soon as I researched it this Crane mentality began to unveil itself again. Some of the negative comments I saw regarding the green centered on how over contoured it was and how difficult it was to putt on.

Putting all of this together leads me to believe that Joshua Crane was won, golf is no longer Golf. The ‘Card and Pencil’ golfers so detested by Alister Mackenzie and Max Behr have seized control of the game and are showing no signs of relinquishing control. In fact, I play from time to time with hickory golf clubs and persimmon woods. Every time I do that I‘ll get asked questions as to why I would do such a thing. “Doesn‘t using those things cost you distance on your shots”, and, “Won‘t this lead to higher scores” are the two most common comments I get. My response to this is always, “Yes. But they are fun to hit.” But that inevitably leads to strange looks from my playing partners.

Oh well. I guess to each their own, but I can‘t be the only adventure seeking golfer out there. There has to be more like me and doesn‘t that leave an entire market segment with their desires being unmet? And exactly what are the golfing market segments and what type of golf do they prefer? Personally, I think Mike Nuzzo hit the nail squarely on the head when he released his article “There is No Greatest Golf Course: There are Only Greatest Golf Courses”.

In that article he said the following:

“I suggest ranking courses based on the type of player by categorizing the greatest courses in the world. Try to place each course in the respective category where it naturally best fits—challenging; pretty; or fun. This works even better with the less-vaunted courses, and it wouldn‘t be much of a leap to describe architects in this same manner. The following few paragraphs provide identifiers of each segment.

The challenge-centric golfer wants every facet of his/her game tested, and for the hole and its required strategy to be clearly visible. They want to be rewarded for a well-struck shot down the middle of the fairway and hate missing putts, either of their own volition, or not. They want the course to be presented fairly and the greens to be nearly flat. They prefer stroke-play events, and I place the typical

golf professional in this grouping. Famed courses such as Pine Valley, Oakmont and Shinnecock Hills fit this player to a tee.

The environment-based golfer loves great maintenance, pretty views, and lots of flowers, waterfalls and fountains. The stereotypical player of this persuasion could be an executive out hitting a few shots on the course, with or without a cart, enjoying the all-pervading scenery, or merely indulging in relaxing chit-chat. This type of golfer might not even keep score, know all the rules or care less. It doesn‘t hurt to be reminded that a percentage of the market segment who prefer a pretty course don‘t even play golf. They utilise a golf course in a whole different way: by choosing to live on the periphery. Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Augusta National are the poster courses for this type of consumer.

The fun-influenced golfer, like the others, loves the game, but is usually more interested in the course or the history and is certainly more whimsical. They can laugh loudest when hitting into a ‘hidden’ bunker, and enjoy a subtle strategy. They want their golf ball to stay ‘in play’ when missing a shot, and prefer more contour to the greens. The returned score is a low priority, as match play is often their game. The Old Course at St Andrews and National Golf Links of America (NGLA) are the two standouts that fit this segment.

Reading Mike‘s thoughts, leads me to believe that the Crane mentality is inherently the same as the challenge centric golfer. Crane espouses fair and equitable golf, while the challenge centric golfer wants to be rewarded for a well-struck shot down the middle of the fairway and hates missing putts, either of their own volition, or not. They want the course to be presented fairly and the greens to be nearly flat. To me this almost perfectly describes the PGA Tour and the type of courses and course set up these guys generally play on. And the marketing muscle behind the PGA Tour seems to be wielding heavy influence over the golfing public, which is perhaps brainwashing them to thinking that this is what golf is; fair and equitable. However, I vehemently disagree with this mentality. It is my opinion that Golf was never intended to be fair or equitable. Golf is a game played outside in the elements and the golfer must contend with all the forces of Mother Nature.

In fact with the recession still having its grips on the golf industry, why doesn‘t someone step up and take golf back to its roots? With all the fair and equitable golf courses being played upon today in many of our home towns, someone could build some of these older style courses/holes and actually call them Extreme Golf Courses. That term seems to be the latest cool phrase that the youth of today seems to be rallying around. And isn‘t it the youth that the golf industry wants to attract? By using this term you could appeal to that target market and open the door to construction of non-traditional courses, but in fact you‘d actually be taking the game back to its roots; 6 hole courses like North Berwick used to be, 12 hole courses, or 22 like The Old Course used to be…whatever, it doesn‘t matter. After all, this isn‘t stereotypical USGA/R&A Championship golf, this is extreme golf; it is an adventure.

Please don‘t mistake what I am saying. I am not saying extreme in length, necessarily. I am saying extreme in the sense of getting golf back to its roots. As I mentioned previously in this piece, you could use a template hole but give me the concept and adjust it for modern technology. A 200 yard Redan with a mundane green; pish-posh. No way!! Make it 280 with a severe green. Think of all the possibilities that could be unleashed with this extreme type of golf. The Sitwell Park ‘Mackenzie Green’ would not only be acceptable, it would be embraced. The old ‘Cader’ hole at Aberdovey would be an ideal type of hole; 165 yard hole with a totally blind tee shot to a green protect by a bunker that is not filled with sand but stones and shale.

But the critics will say, this type of golf is not fair as they cannot possibly record a consistent golf score. Golf score?!? We are talking match play. If you make a 20 and your opponent makes a 2, so what. You only lose the hole and then it is on to the next. But here is the kicker. You don‘t hand out score cards that are stroke play score cards, rather you custom make match play score cards. You don‘t list the par of the hole or the course as it doesn‘t matter. There is no such thing as a par 3, 4 or 5…this is strictly a match play course. And you don‘t tally the stroke total, you only tally who won the most holes. Just like the modern golfer has been brainwashed into thinking his score is what matters and he strives to lower his handicap, we need to brainwash him into a match play mentality…with no holds barred. This can return the game to its roots.

People complain nowadays about the time it takes to play the game, the cost of building a course, and the expense of being a member of a club. Well, those are on 18 hole Championship tracks designed to meet the needs of the, using Mike Nuzzo‘s terms, the Challenge-centric golfer and the Environment-based golfer. This is essentially the Augusta effect at work in combination with the Crane effect. Forget all that, we are talking golf for the Fun-centric golfer. We don‘t need 18 holes because we aren‘t tracking our strokes, instead we are playing a match across as many holes as the course covers. If it is 6 holes, great. If it is 12, great. This will open up the door for fun courses being built on less land, that will naturally cost less money and take less time to play.

With the extreme golf returning the game to its roots, we can potentially have the game appeal to an entire segment of the golfing community that has been largely overlooked for decades, the Fun-centric golfer. And the extreme golfers demographics are most likely the exact demographic that golf is trying desperately to appeal to, the younger generation. And the time and expense it takes to play the game can both be lowered if we adopt these non-traditional courses.

Like I mentioned early in this piece, I am not the most experienced golfer in the world. Perhaps my ideas are full of flaws and will never work. But maybe Patric Dickinson‘s words that he used to describe the ‘Cader’ hole and Aberdovey in 1951 just might fit my ideas well;

“No doubt to the modern-golf course architect this hideous Caliban of a creature… should be done away with. I do not agree. To the end of golf—till the whole game is played mechanically and golfers sit like telephone operators before switchboards in underground club houses radio controlling their robots—let “Cader” lose no stone…Aberdovey is the most perfect ‘natural’ golf. Old-fashioned, even antique—and so becoming immeasurably valuable. Dynamic shafts, supersonic balls, cannot avoid the basic fact; that golf is a game of skill, a game played with the head and the hands…

Here is Aberdovey‘s real secret—it is truly creative golf. Sounds craftsmanship will get you round, but creativeness will make the good round an exhilaration, the bad round despair.”